Shell skills: a Costa Rican chef cracks eggs for an omelette. Photo: Getty
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The trick in life is knowing when to care and when to be careless

When I’m making poached eggs, I crack the shells cautiously but this makes me more likely to mess up.

In asking if we should want things less, my question is pragmatic rather than anti-materialistic. Does decreasing de­sire improve effectiveness? Even if we are fated to be stuck with our ambitions and aspirations, should we – if we can – moderate the grip they exert over us?

Here is a trivial example. If you are a clumsy chef but take breakfast seriously, you may have discovered the paradox of poached eggs. When I am making poached eggs, I crack the shells cautiously to avoid breaking the yolks. Taking greater care, however, makes me more likely to mess it up. When I am making an omelette – and it doesn’t matter if the yolks break or not – I always crack the eggs carelessly but perfectly. Indifference makes me more skilful.

It follows – if only I could manipulate my mind better – that I ought to convince myself that I really want an omelette in order to make myself better poached eggs. This tactic is a well-established form of concentration. In The Master of Go, his elegiac 1951 novel about the Japanese board game go, Yasunari Kawabata describes how elite players trained themselves to become indifferent while waiting for their opponent’s moves. One player, never defeated in a tournament, seemed to expend less psychological energy than his rivals. How did he do it? “While awaiting a play he would sit quietly with his eyes closed,” Kawabata writes. “He explained that he was ridding himself of the desire to win.”

Arguably England’s finest batsman of the 1990s (unnamed for reasons that will become obvious) took the same logic to troubling extremes. As he waited to bat (the most anxious moments of a cricketer’s life), he would convince himself that he had just received a phone call informing him that his children had been in an aeroplane crash. The horror of confronting that imaginary news made the immediate challenges of the real world – standing up to the world’s greatest bowlers and dealing with his fear of failure – seem insignificant and manageable. His macabre psychological trick helped him to bat with freedom and self-expression. Honing a sense of perspective, though painfully achieved, became one of his professional strategies. When he told a team-mate how he manipulated his emotions, the reply was instant: “You’re sick!”

The candle problem, a classic social science experiment, reveals similar motivational paradoxes. Participants are given a candle, a box of drawing pins and a book of matches and asked to fix the lit candle to a wall so that wax does not drip on to the table below. There are two versions of the problem. The first requires some abstract reasoning. The second – an easier version – takes a little time but not much thought.

In 1962, the psychologist Sam Glucksberg tweaked the candle problem by adding financial incentives. He split his participants into two groups. He told the first group that the person to complete the problem in the fastest time would receive what would amount today to $150; those in the top 25 per cent of times would receive $40. The other group was not offered a monetary reward but still asked to solve the problem as fast as they could. Glucksberg then split the two groups again. Half of the incentivised group was given the easier, non-creative problem while the other half faced the harder, more abstract challenge. Similarly, the non-incentivised group was split into two.

Monetary incentives, it turned out, did make a difference to performance – but not in the way you might expect. In the easier version, the carrot of a cash reward led more people to complete the challenge quickly. Yet the opposite happened with the trickier, more creative task: those not incentivised by money performed better than those who were. Glucksberg concluded that competing for financial rewards had shut down problem-solving areas of the brain. In creative disciplines, external incentives – and in consequence “trying harder” – can muddy people’s minds, rather than sharpening them. In the game of real life, this principle is easier observed than it is mastered. Over the course of my cricket career, I constantly struggled with seeking the right balance between two opposite states: first, conscious and assertive willpower; second, indifferent calmness and flow.

Some days, the happiest days, the question of what might happen – success or failure, glory or opprobrium – never came into my mind. In this “zone”, as sportsmen call it, the world seems co-operative; you do not have to bend it to your will. Your task is not to get in the way, but to make yourself more the conduit than the agent.

And yet whenever I decided that I wanted to bat like this all the time – that I would permanently disregard my conscious ambitions and goals as counterproductive – I would invariably get a nasty shock. Long sequences of matches would come and go without me leaving any mark at all. I would wait for the zone to settle on me but it wouldn’t come.

Reluctantly, I would be dragged back into the less elevated sphere of rooting around for grittier motivations – manufacturing scores to settle, bridling at criticism, sharpening desires, conjuring worst-case scenarios. Anything, really, that helped reinforce the conviction that I had to impose my will on the match.

I suspect most of us are always oscillating between those two extremes. Sometimes we rise above economic motivation, vanity and status. At other times, they fuel the fire. In effect, we are playing both versions of the candle problem, intermittently and perhaps involuntarily alternating between extrinsic and intrinsic forms of motivation.

But when should we care and when should we cultivate indifference? There will never be a sociology experiment to resolve that.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder